Cinnque Terra Walk

Terraces, terraces everywhere on these vertiginous slopes. (And believe me, for yours truly they are sickeningly vertiginous.)

Sick, but impressive, as lines of terracing snake along the contours around the hills that drop away into the azure sea. The terraces allow crops of grapevines, vegetables, olive and fruit trees to be grown on slopes that would otherwise be far too steep for cultivation.

Ancient stone terracing along the Cinque Terra

The stone walls that comprise the terraces date back to the BC when Roman soldiers were rewarded with land to farm as a pension for their service to the conquering generals who happened to make Rome great as a spin off to furthering their own political careers. Just why the soldiers would go to the trouble of covering these massive hills with stone walls when there was equally good agricultural land waiting to be conquered and cultivated on not so disrant flatlands remains a mystery to me. But build the walls they did, and generations of peasants have been adding to the walls for over two thousand years since.

Stone path through the olive trees

Clambering up and down these steep hills overlooking the Mediterranean, I feel so inspired by what has been achieved here. These stone retaining walls sit on slopes as steep as the Bronte Gully where I have been labouring for two decades turning an old tip into rainforest. Our plan is to re-establish a bit of wild nature there. While many parts of Sydney has retained a high proportion of bush, the area where I live has been relentlessly urbanised and bush accounts for a tiny fraction of 1% of total land area. The once babbling stream at the bottom of the gully that was rich in freshwater habitat has been turned into a dull concrete drain that supports a thin film of algal slime.

Those trees alongside the drain are coral trees that were originally planted here to stabilise the steep former tip site and stop erosion. Coral trees are invasive, and those original trees were very effective at spreading and now cover the entire steep hillside. Unfortunately the tree is a fierce environmental weed that doesn’t allow any native vegetation to grow underneath, just more exotic weeds, further curtailing biodiversity. They form a dense crown that allows very little light through, and suck up all the water in summer. And they are extremely difficult to remove. The entire slope became a dense thicket of exotic weeds, far beyond the capacity of the local council to manage.

Dense perennial weeds under the canopy of invasive coral trees

Not a native in sight

So they put in the too hard basket, washed their hands and left it to us volunteer greenies to deal with.

Honestly, is this really how we want our precious urban green spaces to be managed? If we are to live in cities sustainably, I think not . We can no longer afford to follow the old Roman city model of relentless bricks and mortar relieved only by grand monuments to the alpha-male ego. It would be more helpful to bring nature back into the city, and a very good way to do this is to offer nature a hand by establishing and cultivating natural ecosystems until they become self-sustaining.

Looking east along gully with new planting in foreground, established revegetation in middle ground the orange flowered coral tree beyond.

The height of those slopes at home may be a lot less than these Italian hills, but the steepness of the terrain is the same, as is the challenge of cultivation –

how to stabilise the ground, reinforce it against the gravity’s pull, so that plants can be easily cultivated. We had to scrounge all the terrace wall materials we could find, including recycled building rubble. Here, the crops are grapevines, olives and vegetables for human consumption.

At home our small group is transforming a steep weed infested slope into terracing to clear and stabilise the slope. Soon these new terraces will be mulched and planted out with rainforest trees that will one day assume the role of stabilising the slope themselves.

Looking north up the steep slope at Bronte Gully.

While in Cinque Terra, the stones are indigenous, collected from the fields, home at Bronte we have had to improvise using dumped building rubble left from the demolition of local houses in the 1970s. While this landscaping isn’t strictly necessary, it enhances the post planting growth of plants and stability of the slope. Until the tree roots get a good hold on the steep slopes, the young plants are susceptible to gravity’s relentless pull. On these steep slopes heavy downpours wash away everything, mulch, soil, rocks and plants. And each time we come through clearing out the new weeds competing with the young trees for water, nutrients and space, our every step creates a little avalanche pushing soil and rubble down hill. If the rainforest is to flourish, the ground has to be terraced and stabilised.

Looking down a recently terraced and planted slope of over 60 degrees. Note the amount of building rubble that has been exposed by heavy rain washing away a thick bed of mulch.

Even though we are working in the opposite direction to these ancient farmers who were transforming wild hillsides into cultivated fields while we are trying to turn a tip site into a wild hillside, we can still learn a great deal from their micro-engineering techniques.

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